by David Fujino
Based on the premise that all izakayas are not created equal, I decided to subject hapa izakaya to my personal taste test — not that I’m an expert aficionado of izkayas, but I was curious about this chain of restaurants which regularly advertises in The Bulletin and has spread its empire from the Vancouver area (West End, Kitsilano, Yaletown, Coal Harbour) into Toronto.
In fact, hapa izakaya has been in Toronto’s Little Italy (College St.) since 2012 and, because they’ve stayed in business up to this point, I feel safe in saying that hapa izakaya has more than contributed its share of cross-cultural cuisine to the restaurant life in that part of town. But the restaurant business can be crippling. With this in mind, I thought it was high time to experience and then report on hapa izakaya.
The very term, hapa, made me wonder if this meant the food was a mix of cultural influences — hapa, as in the Hawaiian term, hapa, which usually means half, or half-and-half — but exactly half-and-half, of what? I wanted to taste their food.
I started with an Asahi black beer which I’ve not found in Toronto’s LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) stores. Even staff can’t find Asahi’s distributor listed on the internet. (I’ve recently figured the beer must arrive in Toronto via a Vancouver connection.) Tonight, it was so dark, good and smooth, and it was ice cold.
While looking over the main menu, as well as the separate drinks menu, I appreciated the smart blending of ‘classic’ Japanese cuisine with other types of food, like the hot and cold tapas on the menu. The drinks menu had its sake, shochu, beers and wines, but I was pretty much stuck on tasting Asahi black again, so I didn’t explore the drinks menu much further. Excuse me, but I’m a mere mortal.
I promptly ordered Nasi Goreng from the hot tapas section, and when I told the black-haired waitress that I was kind of writing a review and I’d be taking notes, she craned her neck around to read out loud the ingredients posted on the room’s nearby blackboard. She explained that the seasonal Ichiyaki specials were cooked in hot stone rice bowls (as are some versions of Korean bi-bim-bop, also known as mixed rice). I could choose between miso pork or the spicy Nasi Goreng, which I chose.
According to my waitress, Jiena, Nasi Goreng is actually a Malaysian dish made of prawns, cilantro, sunny side up fried egg bits, nori, rice, and Sriracha sauce. When she brought the Nasi Goreng to the table, she thoroughly mixed the ingredients together with two spoons and warned me that the bowl was hot and the prawns should be given time to cook.
As I ate the reddish rice (I know it was the Sriracha sauce) my face heated up pleasurably, and after sips of the cold and refreshing black Asahi beer, I noticed I wasn’t even sweating, but my face still felt warm. A few moments later, the heat went away, and I ordered Wagyu meat balls (five was it?) — buttery beef meat balls served in a narrow ceramic server, with sesame seeds, a maple syrup and teriyaki sauce, and green onions — and another Asahi dark.
According to internet legend, the Isobe family (Vancouver) brought the first hapa izakaya to Toronto in In their first year, they struggled and fought through adversity but were forced to close for four months to properly regroup. They reopened in late 2013 to declare that they serve wild seafood instead of farmed, and their dishes are gluten free. There’s clearly been a lot of detailed business planning behind hapa izakaya.
At hapa izakaya, the dishes said it all — and this I saw as a bonus. Their menu mostly avoided offering the usual izakaya fare, the many battered and deep-fried dishes out there (which I prefer to avoid, if I have a choice, though I always love fresh tempura). Still, their food looks good and tastes good.
And besides the sushi pressed in (hako) moulds, hapa izakaya even offered a tei shoku dinner but of course requests advance notice; also, there was a wide selection of ‘off-Japanese’ and ‘off- Asian’ foods that were neatly tucked away into the menu under the categories of cold and hot tapas; or directly introduced as fish and chips with bacon and scallop; or beef steaks, sukiyaki, koraage, okonomi, and yaki udon — tasty dishes that go well with drinks.
And finally, as befits a cool izakaya, I remember its ‘sound’. When I entered, an acoustic blues was playing. Black blues. Wailing and playing guitar, a man tells his story. I thought it was Bukka White for some reason. I could be wrong.
But look — hapa izakaya, like most izakayas, really exists, folks! to sell cocktails, wine and beer, first. The food enhances the experience of drinking alcoholic beverages beautifully = food paired with drink — at least, those were my thoughts that quiet Wednesday night.
Meanwhile, I was luxuriating in the momentary heat of the spicy (Malaysian) dish, Nasi Goreng, and I frankly don’t recall what music was playing at that moment. I happily returned to the glass of black, cold beer I was enjoying. In ‘typical’ Japanese fashion, this beer changed your mood, but it didn’t render you totally drunk. How Japanese. (To me, it was similar to sitting in a local pub drinking Guinness — another smooth dark beer (Irish) which doesn’t have a very high alcoholic content, either — 5% ? At this moment, you notice how relaxed and clear-headed you feel.)
But to make a long story short — here’s some some snapshots of the menu: COLD TAPAS – Tuna avocado salsa dip; Tuna carpaccio; Sockeye salmon sashimi; Negitoro (albacore tuna, green onion, garlic toast); Beef tataki (seared beef, with sesame chilli sauce).
HOT TAPAS – Halibut tacos; Yaki udon; Ika; Karaage (boneless Japanese style chicken); Beef short ribs; Pork belly wrapped in lettuce; Ebi mayo; Wagyu meat balls (beef, sesame seeds, maple syrup, teriyaki sauce, king oyster mushrooms, pine nuts); hapa wings.
PRESSED SUSHI (hako) mould style – Saba oshisushi (mackerel, shiso, ginger, sesame seeds); Fire cracker oshisushi (albacore tuna, cucumber, tempura flakes, tobiko, spicy mayo); Wagyu oshisushi (beef, soy, garlic butter); Ebi oshisushi (cooked prawn, roasted garlic, onion, mayo).
… After the Asahi dark beers, the Nasi Goren and meatballs, and the matcha crème brûlée for dessert (it was delicious and creamy and tasted just like soothing green tea ice cream inside); and by the time the crème brûlée’s hard crust with a strawberry slice on top and a fresh sprig of mint was broken through by my spoon (it was fun and tasty), I definitely needed a glass of tap water to clear my palate. While eating the rich and delicate dessert, the manager had kindly dropped by and offered me a glass of Fiji water, charged by the glass, or would I like a glass of tap water? You already know which water I chose.
But as I sat there, I visualized a busy flow of drinks and food and people inside the dark wooden interior filled with long lines of welcoming dark wooden tables and I saw why hapa izakaya was a casual yet comfortable place to meet young friends and relax, for there were booths, too, placed slightly to the sides of the main floor. I occupied one. The place didn’t try to occupy centre stage.
And for the first time, I admired a restaurant for its simple décor. This place knocked over one of my mother’s social observations — which she offered as others’ ‘folk wisdom of the times’ — that hakujin often admire the wallpaper in a restaurant whereas the Japanese admire its food. (whoops).
It often boils down to personal taste. I liked the menu at hapa izakaya because, in their choice of ingredients, a Japanese flavour is maintained (they do have sushi and sukiyaki) and — while the hapa dishes, the majority, are largely based on ‘classical’ Japanese food — they appear on the menu with distinctive and appropriate, slightly altered names and ingredients as tuna carpaccio, halibut tacos, or beef short ribs.
I’m not saying hapa izakaya is the only izakaya to put these dishes on their menu. I’m saying I applaud how hapa izakaya assembled their whole menu — successfully, in my opinion. I enjoyed my tasting visit.
hapa izakaya, 602 College St., Toronto, phone: 647 748-4272 www.happatoronto.com